Tuesday, February 2, 2016

"The Japanese Lover" by Isabel Allende

There are many love stories in this novel by Isabel Allende, but it was not the title that attracted me to it. The hook was the first chapter. It narrates the story of Irina, a young woman from Moldova who is hired to work at Lark House, an imaginary nursing home located in California.

  Irina bonds with the residents of Lark House because she is kind, sensitive and caring. After an unexpected turn of events, Irina is also hired to work a few hours a week for Alma, one of the residents.

  Both Irina and Alma harbor secrets that hold the suspense of the novel till the end.

 Even though they had different backgrounds, Alma and Irina had something in common: they’d both migrated to America under difficult circumstances.  Alma had moved to the United States from Poland at age seven when her Jewish parents, terrified by the rise of Nazism, sent her to live with her uncle and aunt in America. During her childhood she met Ichimei, a family friend with whom she fell in love.

   The story is narrated from an omniscient point of view. The present and past moments of their lives alternate and the writer paints the intimate landscapes of the characters’ thoughts and emotions. We also get to know the Japanese lover through the letters that he wrote to Alma.

 This novel encouraged me to learn more about American history. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese government in 1941 President Roosevelt declared war on Japan. On the West Coast of the United States of America thousands of American citizens of Japanese background were detained and sent to concentration camps for no other reason than their race. Their bank accounts and possessions were confiscated by the government.

The Japanese had to quickly sell off whatever they owned at knockdown prices, and to close their businesses. They soon discovered that their bank accounts had been frozen; they were ruined.”
“By August, more than a hundred and twenty thousand men, women and children would be evacuated, old people snatched from hospitals, babies from orphanages, and mental patients from asylums. They would be interned in ten concentration camps in isolated areas of the interior, while cities would be left with phantom neighborhoods full of empty homes and desolate streets, where abandoned pets and the confused spirit of the ancestors who had arrived in America with the immigrants wandered aimlessly.”

 I think this is a relevant reminder of how hate speeches fueled by fanaticism, racism and economic hardship do have consequences. Nevertheless, those consequences were presented under the veil of censorship.
It was a temporary solution and would be carried out in a humane fashion. This was the official line, but meanwhile the hate speech spread. ‘A snake is always a snake, wherever it lays its eggs. A Japanese-American born of Japanese parents, brought up in a Japanese tradition, living in an atmosphere transplanted from Japan, inevitably and with only rare exceptions grows up as Japanese and not American. They are all enemies.’ It was enough to have a great-grandfather born in Japan to be seen as a snake.”

  Another important subject that this novel touches is that of sex trafficking and forced prostitution. This cruel horrifying “business” is one of the most profitable in the world, and it makes me wonder why it has not been eradicated yet. Is it because there are many “customers” out there who are willing to pay for sex slaves? Is it because society is too busy slut-shaming victims instead of helping them?

    This novel is about love, friendship and trust, and what I enjoyed the most about it is that the author merged the political and social aspects of it with the personal lives of the characters. The end is bittersweet, a reflection on the timelessness and endurance of love.